The Spirit of Qi

Man with conceptual spiritual body art

Recently I heard someone comment that “spirit” is the root word of respire; to breath. Inspire, respire, expire, the root of all these words is the latin spiritus which meant/means breathing, spirit, wind or breeze, energy. Isn’t this weird? This sounds so similar to the idea of the Chinese word Qi.

How about the Greek word pneuma? In ancient Greek philosophy and medicine, pneuma is defined as “Air or an all-pervading fiery essence in the air (which today would be identified with oxygen), which was the creative and animating spirit of the universe; drawn into the body through the lungs, it generated and sustained the innate heat in the left ventricle of the heart and was distributed by the arteries to the brain and all parts of the body.(1)

It’s easy to see the connection between the breath and wind. But spirit? Is that because when people stopped breathing, their “spirit” “left?” They “expired” in more ways than one?

It looks like the idea that breath, energy, and spirit were related was not only common in China, but also in western cultures before the scientific revolution. Is this type of belief typical of “iron age” civilizations? The discovery of oxygen in 1774 called into question the existence of some spiritual animating force in air. Scuba divers can dive with a mix of oxygen and nitrogen or even a mix of oxygen and helium. So it looks like oxygen is the essential component of atmospheric air for humans (although too much oxygen is fatal!). If Qi is necessary for life and one type of Qi comes from the air, can we deduce that that particular Qi is oxygen?

I think some practitioners of Chinese medicine in the west believe that “science” dismisses many of its concepts out of hand. But when we realize that Greek pneuma and Latin spiritus are, for the most part, parallels to Chinese qi, we see that the modern scientific viewpoint has evolved out of very similar beginnings. A belief in an animating vital force and humorism.

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